One of the biggest stories in Central Florida in the 1990s was how the Orlando Sentinel was found to have contaminated the ground under a large swath of downtown Orlando.
For decades, the company had been sending chemicals from its printing presses into drains on the floor of the plant. Those chemicals traveled from its property at Orange Avenue and Colonial Drive, almost all the way to Lake Concord.
The main chemical, trichloroethylene or TCE, was extremely hazardous to people, with an extreme risk of causing cancer.
When the stories broke about this polluted flume of chemicals, the thought was that land would be impacted for decades and would probably be a black hole of development in the heart of the city core.
In fact, the property appraiser slashed the value of all property above the plume by 50 percent.
Today, the north downtown corridor has seen a significant rebound. There are restaurants and apartments, office buildings and small shops. It is a walkable community where businesses and residents thrive.
It also cost millions to clean up and was the subject of a years-long lawsuit to ensure the Sentinel took responsibility, forcing them to clean up the groundwater.
Even though the Sentinel stopped using TCE in 1982, the issue was not publicly known for years. No business wants to be known as a polluter, it is imperative to make sure you understand any issues that might affect the purchase of commercial land you intend to develop.
The attorneys at The Orlando Law Group can help you with any issues of contamination that might be found on a property you are interested in buying.
What type of contamination could be there?
It seems like there is an endless supply of chemicals and hazards that can be found on a site you might be interested in purchasing.
The Environmental Protection Agency says a contaminated property may be “from a variety of intended, accidental, or naturally occurring activities and events such as manufacturing, mineral extraction, abandonment of mines, national defense activities, waste disposal, accidental spills, illegal dumping, leaking underground storage tanks, hurricanes, floods, pesticide use, and fertilizer application.”
Plus, there are thousands of sites throughout the country that have been contaminated. In fact, there are several “brownfields” in Central Florida alone. But there is no tracking system for most of these lands, only the biggest and the worst of the sites. The only way you can know for sure that a dry cleaner in the 1970s was not dumping chemicals on your property is through your own due diligence.
If you don’t perform the due diligence and ensure a clean-up procedure before you buy the land, you’re liable for the contamination as well as the original owner once you use the property.
Hire an engineer.
When you look to purchase a building and plan to finance the purchase or the construction of a new building on vacant land, nearly all financial institutions will require an environmental study, usually just a “Phase I” study.
In this study, a licensed engineer will do a review of the property, going back 50 years to see if there is any reason to suspect some sort of contamination. This is more of a review of the history of the property and nearby businesses. The engineer will look at photos, insurance claims, property records and more.
If the Phase I study shows there may be a reason to think the land could have some issues, a Phase II study will be needed.
The Phase II study is significantly more comprehensive. It includes soil borings and underground water samples. The engineer will run extensive studies on the samples to determine if there is any contamination and how serious it possibly could be.
Depending on the results of the phase II study, a phase III assessment may be needed. This is the most extensive environmental study you can have. It should show the contamination in its entirety and will have a mediation plan to eliminate the issue, including the costs.
Cleaning up contaminated land is not a quick or easy process. If there are chemicals in the soil, the dirt is often trucked off-site to a cleaning facility and disposed of, often through burning. If the water is contaminated, it is a long process of replacing the contaminated water with clean water.
Hire a lawyer.
At this point, a decision will need to be made to determine who is going to pay for the clean-up of the contamination.
In some cases, it should be an easy call. For instance, the pollution in downtown Orlando started at the Orlando Sentinel’s printing facility and flowed downstream.
But, initially, the Sentinel blamed employees for disobeying disposal rules. It blamed an extermination company nearby. It denied any sort of responsibility.
It took seven years of lawsuits by property owners to get some relief – the Sentinel eventually purchased their property in a confidential settlement. The Sentinel also had relief come from the state and the city, which forced the Sentinel to pay just 60 percent of the cleanup of the area.
Since then, nearly $3 million was spent to clean up downtown. There were thousands of pounds of organic chemicals removed from the area and around 209 million gallons of water have been cleaned.
But do you want to purchase a property that could be tied up in litigation, if there is even a company or individual to sue to clean up? Can you recoup your investment in the cleanup through future revenues? Can you include clean-up in your purchase negotiation?
That is where The Orlando Law Group comes in. We are able to work through all of the legal analysis to determine how and where you might get relief. Our attorneys can provide you with a complete picture of the property you are interested in purchasing, so you can make an informed choice.
The attorneys at The Orlando Law Group represent clients in commercial real estate and more in Orlando, Waterford Lakes, Altamonte Springs, Winter Garden, Lake Nona, St. Cloud, Kissimmee, and throughout Central Florida.
If you have questions about anything discussed in this article or other legal matters, give our office a call at 407-512-4394 or fill out our online contact form to schedule a consultation to discuss your case. We have an office conveniently located at 12301 Lake Underhill Rd, Suite 213, Orlando, FL 32828, as well as offices in Seminole, Osceola and West Orange counties to assist you.
The articles on this blog are for informative purposes only and are no substitute for legal advice or an attorney-client relationship. If you are seeking legal advice, please contact our law firm directly.
Last Updated on October 2, 2023 by The Orlando Law Group